Women and the socialist movements of the 1960s

Cathy Nugent explores the role of women in the birth of the anti-capitalist, socialist movements of the 1960s

mai 68Following the events of May in France, the biggest general strike in history, taking its inspiration from the bitter and explosive rebellion of black people in the USA, it had its roots in the students’ movement and the struggle against the Vietnam war. What revolutionary movement was this? The women’s liberation movement!

The struggles of 1968 came to represent for the militants of the day an irrepressible, kick-ass fighting attitude against capitalism and against all forms of oppression. The youthful desire of 1968 to smash the old order and replace it with something more human was to be a continual reference point for the women’s liberation movement as well.

Looking back in 1979 Sheila Rowbottom described the galvanising effect of ’68: “The energy which erupted in May 1968 was overwhelming. You could catch a glimpse of that extraordinary concentrated force of people’s power to dissolve constraining structures which must be the subjective experience of a revolutionary process… Nothing seemed impossible… Capitalism was seen as claiming your whole being. We were all colonised and had to become total resisters. The focus was not only on production or even on a wider concept of class struggle but on oppression in everyday life – particularly the family and consumption.”

The new women’s movement was born anti-capitalist and involved many socialist women who, in their energetic debates, attempted to create a radical critique of capitalism and bourgeois existence which put the oppression of women centre stage. They were rediscovering, recreating and reassessing the old, rich literature of the early Marxist movement on the “Woman Question”. They also attempted to go beyond it.

“Women’s Lib” was a creative movement with a lasting impact. The original goals of the movement were only half won – we have a legal right to equal pay with men but are still low-paid – or not won at all, such as 24 hour nurseries under community control. Nonetheless a social revolution did take place. Women are much more sexually free for instance.

The women’s revolution was only half a revolution, and it was never a worldwide revolution: although a few women may walk on the moon, millions of us still can’t go out of our homes without having to cover our bodies from head to foot. Women were not affected equally by the revolution. Class and race continues to obstruct female emancipation.

These issues were discussed in the women’s movement – at the level of theory at least. How to combine the categories of class and sex was the theoretical conundrum. The socialist feminist current made some progress towards constructing an integrated revolutionary theory. However by the end of the ’70s this debate became arid, convoluted and confined to the breeze-block buildings of Britain’s new universities. Yet the issues remain very relevant.

It wasn’t all theory in the beginning: it was much more about picketing, postering, graffitti-ing, marching and fighting the police at the Miss World contest. And it wasn’t just a middle class movement of ex-student women.

305082_10100547723042668_1157331886_nIn the UK a fight in 1968 by fishermen’s’ wives to improve the safety on trawlers showed working class women campaigning publicly and provided initial inspiration to the women’s movement. It was only the latest, modern example of working class women fighting for their communities, in solidarity with men. Such a class struggle was seen again with Women Against Pit Closures and more recently with Women on the Waterfront.

A more important struggle of 1968 came from sewing machinists at Ford’s in Dagenham, striking for equal pay. Equal pay became the first demand of the broader women’s movement.

The modern women’s movement was also impelled by social changes affecting working class women. From the end of the 1960s more and more women began to come into the workplace, a trend which will – all things being equal – continue into the next century. The experience made women more economically independent, brought them out of the isolated world of the “married home” and into the social world where they could shake off the constrictions of a life centred purely on family and private relationships. It helped women to recognise their own oppression. To a degree this has always been so.

At the end of the last century when women clattered down the Lancashire streets, on their way home from working at the textile factories, laughing at the men they worked with, with money in their pockets, confident and carefree, they may not have automatically recognised their own oppression. But, for some, it was natural to want more equality and to join the women’s suffrage movement. They may also have joined unions or even parties like the Independent Labour Party.

The battles for class and sex equality have often coincided. So it was with the modern women’s movement, with its origins in the social changes and anticapitalist struggles of the late ’60s. Yet by the end of the 1970s the radical and cultural feminists, for whom male dominance was the primary motor of history, had become the mainstream feminists. So much so that Andrea Dworkin was feted by the likes of Ken Livingstone and other leftists when she came to town.

What, then, happened to the socialist feminists?

A number political pressures and problems combined to ensure their eclipse. The American socialist feminists were influential. Although what they had to say was as interesting as their European sisters, their conception of socialism was more often influenced by Stalinism, Maoism, and the Marxism and professional sociology of academia. The combination of feminists with such a political background and the influence on European feminism of the quasi-Stalinism and Maoism of post-Trotsky Trotskyism and groups like Big Flame [“libertarian” Maoists] was lethal.

Most Marxists, socialists and Trotskyists of the ’60s and the socialist feminists of the ’70s were not able to get to grips with what was happening to the working class – in particular how the class would relate to the existing workers’ parties, be that social democracy or the Communist Parties. Some Trotskyists looked for substitute revolutionary vanguards – the Maoists, the students etc. For some socialist feminists the vanguard was women. For instance Barbara Ehrenreich – an American socialist feminist – conflated the political and organisational defeat of the North American working class with the subjugation of women. She argued that this working class has been “atomised” and women as keepers of, tenders of, private existence have been central to this process: “Autonomy and creativity can only be expressed through our choice of furniture, or clothes or cigarettes.” This may be a reasonable description of modern life but it takes no account of the responsibility of the workers’ leaders for the defeated state of the class, its “atomisation” and apathy.

Instead of a strategy which aimed to transform the labour movement and make it fight for women’s rights, the women’s movement, Ehrenreich said, will be a new vanguard which can rebuild a class movement. Such ideas pushed in the direction of putting male and female struggles against capitalism into separate categories.

In the UK there was a continual ambiguity about how distinct socialist feminism should be as a political tendency on the left. Should it be a movement of women in socialist organisations? If the rest of the left was so sexist why not compete against it? Was socialist feminism to be an integral, caucusing, autonomous part of the left?

The discussion was complicated by the various confused attitudes of the left organisations. At one end of the spectrum of confusion was Militant, who only “discovered” feminism about the same time they left the Labour Party, in the 1990s! At the other end of the spectrum were the International Marxist Group (IMG) who, to their credit, were at least involved in the movement from the start. They had a women’s paper – Socialist Woman – which, though it may have covered socialist feminist debate, appeared to have no political life independent of the socialist feminist current.

Then there was the hot/cold, sectarian/opportunist attitude of the International Socialists. Individual women in IS were involved but it was not until the mid’70s that their group saw the movement as anything connected to “real struggle”. Eventually the IS, (by then the Socialist Workers’ Party) started their own paper, Women’s Voice, which set up discussion groups with independent life. At this point the SWP shut down Women’s Voice. Clearly it was becoming unreliable at what it was set up for – to be a recruiting front.

There is a more simple explanation for the problems the socialist feminist movement had in trying to establish a collective identity. They were under pressure from both sides. It’s not very pleasant being called a “bloody feminist”, “precious”, etc., etc., from out-of-date lefties. But it’s more annoying to be described as – words to this effect – a bimbo from the “male dominated socialist movement” who can’t think for herself and has been brain-washed by those nasty Leninists. It was a bit rich when members of the Communist Party (!) in alliance with a group of radical feminists pushed that line against female Workers’ Liberty supporters in the student movement at the end of the 1980s. But by that point the chances and opportunities were over for socialist feminism to develop as a strong and coherent political current with which the revolutionary socialist left could have made a healthy united front.

Workers’ Liberty’s forerunners tried to work out a way of being Trotskyists, working class socialists – to intervene sensitively in the movement but at the same time forthrightly. We got involved in National Abortion Campaign and the campaign around the Working Women’s Charter, but it took a long time to think of a way to take the initiative. In March 1982 we did initiate a conference – Fightback for Women’s Rights. Bringing together 500 women, including single issue equality campaigns such as NAC and Women’s Aid, and focusing on the rights of working class women it was an attempt to lay the basis for mass campaigning work under the new Tory government and to find the links between the goals and aspirations of socialist feminists and the needs and demands of working-class women. The conference came at a time when many socialist feminists were changing direction and were joining the Labour Party in order to be part of a struggle for democracy and political regeneration inside the political wing of the labour movement.

From this point on the fate of socialist feminism is more closely bound up with the history of the left both inside and outside the Labour Party. For a time the struggles of socialist feminists in the Labour Party women’s sections looked like being crucial in the battle to regenerate the labour movement. The women’s sections were often more radical than the mainstream of the party – they opposed the Falklands War for instance. Organisations like the Women’s Action Committee argued for greater representation for Labour Party women but their strategy foundered when the leadership of WAC chose not to link up with the fight to get Labour’s leaders to oppose the Tory cuts.

When much of the left – Ken Livingstone when he was leader of the GLC for instance – backtracked from the fight against restrictions on local government spending, the consequences were damaging for the cause of socialist feminism. Money for community projects to help the oppressed – women, black people, lesbians and gays – became the hallmark of GLC “radicalism”. Fighting the Tories fell off the agenda. Some socialist feminists, along with much of the Labour left, fell in with the strategy of putting off the fight – they raised the rates, they introduced the “dented shield” [policy of making “selective” cuts now while “holding out” for a Labour government], they implemented the poll tax. Suddenly there was no longer any women’s centres. Finally International Women’s Week became an aromatheraphy/reflexology fest.

Leading socialist feminist, Hilary Wainwright, went off to help found the Socialist Movement – an amorphous movement, founded in the wake of Kinnock’s counterrevolution in the Labour Party, whose members were all committed to “socialism” but were not invited to debate how to achieve socialism.

There was nothing inevitable about the retreat of the left or socialist feminism. When the women from the mining communities started to organise themselves as a powerful battalion in the strike the left in the Labour Party, its sisters too, rallied round. It was a fantastic example of working class women organising and could have given socialist feminism a reason for existence for many years to come. The strike was defeated, and it was not to be.

While it lasted the socialist feminist current in the women’s movement was a genuine attempt to rethink and to rediscover a socialist past. So many questions…

What is the role of the family under capitalism? Did women’s labour in the family constitute productive labour? What could we learn from the experience of the Russian Revolution? Could we socialise housework and childcare? What would the family have looked like under socialism?

From Kollontai (Alexandra; leading Bolshevik who eventually capitulated to Stalin) the socialist feminists claimed the idea that revolutionary transformation included all aspects of human existence. After the revolution personal relationships would be more equal and humane. The issues surrounding Kollontai’s writing were discussed. How can we take these ideas as prescriptions for the future if they have emerged from an historical experience that was flawed and difficult.

Socialist feminists had to confront their own utopian instincts. The personal and emotional aspects of the women’s movement were difficult to deal with. Over-concern with issues of psychological health risked charges of middle-class Iife-stylism. A lack of concern with what oppression feels like was a point of agitation against the Marxist organisations – and a reasonable point of agitation no doubt when socialist men felt they could call you “girl” or “love” and get away with it.

Some feminists, such as Juliet Mitchell and Lynne Segal, used a psychoanalytical framework as a source of intellectual ideas for socialist feminism. Reich, who most clearly linked societal exploitation and oppression with repression, was rediscovered by the left. The concept of repression as a controlling mechanism in the construction of female sexuality was popular.

The debate on sexuality was a response to the radical feminists. In the mid-’70s the national conference of the women’s liberation movement had adopted a new demand – the “right of women to a self-defined sexuality”. For radical feminists the idea of a freely chosen sexuality (if such a thing is possible) could be skewed to mean that only a sexuality freely chosen as lesbian, and strictly separate from men, was liberating. The socialist feminists made a defensive response.

Another issue was how ideological sexism related to economic Iife, to production. A sometimes Stalinist distortion of Marxist political economy obscured the debate – “Marxism says in the final analysis the superstructure is determined by the economic base” – that sort of thing. The crude mis-reading led to ideological back flips – an idealistic view of society where consciousness determines being. The notion of an integrated class struggle, of fighting on all fronts – the economic, political and ideological – could have be an antidote to both the “economic determinist” view and the idealistic view, but that modal of class struggle was simply not available from the socialist movement.

Sometimes there was a demand to put a socialist feminist stamp on everything: anti fascism, health, Ireland, trade unions. Everything had to be intricately scrutinised, “added-in”, deliberately, audited for content. There was a overwhelming self-consciousness to our feminism in those days. In the end some feminists, tired of trying to integrate class and sex chose to make it separate – equal but different, as the old male chauvinist expression goes. The writings of Heidi Hartman et al exemplified this political choice: society was made up of two systems, one divided by patriarchy the other by class.

The ideas of socialist feminism are still relevant. We desperately need political signposts to guide us through the contradictory nature of the changes which have occurred in the relationships between the sexes. By the end of the century as many women as men will be in waged work. This women’s work has a critical role in the restructuring of capitalism. The left has scarcely begun to analyse these changes. Should we turn once against to Marx’s Capital? Re-reading his [copious] notes about work for nimble fingers, in areas of the economy where unions scarcely existed and where low wages were so low they were used to drive down the wages of the whole working class, it seems things have hardly changed!

The central focus of all the socialist feminist debates was the family – they had an alternative vision of a society where social chaos could be replaced by rational, humane and equal relationships, where there could be a myriad of “family” relationships, but freely chosen. In capitalist societies, where existing family relationships are visibly disintegrating, without social institutions of any kind to replace them, we need alternatives to the various moral panics from the right and the socalled liberal establishment.

Everything changes, everything stays the same. We live in a world where abortion rights may be established but discussion of abortion is still taboo. Women may no longer be prepared to be wife slaves, serving their man’s meal up on the dot of 6.30, but we are still slaves to our children, taking the lioness’s share of responsibility for childcare.

In the end it is working class women who still have a world to win. “Juggling” with the nanny, the job and the taps to the gym are simply not the same as being exhausted by poverty wages, insecurity and the constant worry that your kids will face a future of unemployment, poverty and despair.

The sexual confidence that young working class women have today has brought us closer to the original goal of the women’s liberation movement. This progress has even affected women with religious backgrounds, albeit in a contradictory way – platform shoes peeking out from underneath purdah. Yet as long as capitalism makes women into commodities that look like stick insects we are still quite far away from getting our sexual freedom. Nothing has changed… only socialism in the end can liberate humanity, lay the basis for the liberation of women and guarantee every individual man or woman can be creative, whole and free.

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